The 13th Festival Of Fantastic Film Gerardmer awarded this Irish/UK co-production both its Grand Prize and The International Critics’ Prize in January, and if there’s any justice in the world then its current tour of festivals worldwide should net director/writer Billy O’Brien further plaudits. Scheduling it first thing in the morning on day three of Frightfest 2006 meant, however, that the very audience best placed to appreciate it were still recovering from the previous night’s features, many still making their way in to Leicester Square. Also, UK horror fans are familiar with that previous attempt to combine Ireland, cows, and horror in a film, Dead Meat, and so many didn’t bother. Those who did, however, witnessed what may very well be the best pure horror film of the festival.
An Irish dairy farmer and the local vet have accepted cash off the books from a European biotech scientist for the farmer’s herd to serve as test subjects in an unknown experiment. Meanwhile, a caravan with a traveller boy and his girlfriend, seemingly on the run, squat on the farmer’s land. All of them will find these to be the worst decisions they have ever made when faced with the terror that is upon them…
As one is always aware of in the art of cinema, it is easy to take a serious concept and render it in a comic manner, but it is very hard indeed to take a ludicrous-sounding concept and make the audience take it seriously. From the above summary, it would be easy to boil this film down to the high concept “killer mutant cows”, which indeed in essence it is. That it is so expertly rendered as a tense, claustrophobic, terrifying affair, particularly if like me you are a confirmed urbanite with horrid childhood holiday memories of muddy farms in the middle of nowhere, is entirely down to farm-raised director/writer O’Brien, proving that the “write what you know” adage is as relevant within genre as without. Wintry rural Ireland, miles from the nearest village, with disused rusted machinery, creaky old wooden fences, and pitch-black silent nights, is an ideal horror setting. A plot that echoes Stephen Gallagher novels in its bio-tech horror with eco trappings, while also feeling at times like a throwback to classic TV drama such as Doomwatch and the works of Nigel Kneale, stands out a mile amidst the glut of teen slasher flicks and oh-so-fashionable gory torture trips on display in the multiplexes and the Festival itself. What got the audience talking after the film most of all, though, was the direction and the acting.
With some films, discussing their merits using the names of other creators can make the film in question seem like no more than a rip-off at worst, and homage at best. To mention Ridley Scott’s Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing when discussing Isolation would do Billy O’Brien a disservice were I to let you believe either of those two things, as neither is true. Instead, these are genuine influences, fully absorbed and then re-used in a fresh, interesting way, with the director showing a careful understanding of the importance and value of widescreen framing & composition, industrial textures and lighting, and a true ensemble cast. O’Brien mentioned in the Q & A afterwards about deliberately aiming for Giger-esque shapes and images at times, showing an understanding of his influences’ own influences, recognition of where the creativity is sourced from in other art forms. He also has a very clear understanding of the human drama that can lead to horrific occurrences, allowing no-one in the film to be black & white in their motivations and actions. This can only, as in Alien and The Thing, be carried off with a sufficiently talented cast, and every performer rises to the occasion, in particular main protagonist John Lynch, here a very long way from his debut in Pat O’Connor’s Cal. Age has turned him into a riveting screen presence, here embodying a strong, honourable, quiet type forced to compromise to keep his beloved herd and farm solvent, the kind of character Charles Bronson or Joe Don Baker might have played once upon a time. His interactions with Ruth Nega’s vet speak volumes about the character without dialogue, and she matches him in the acting stakes. The runaway young lovers are also well-played, Sean Harris (the late Ian Curtis in Michael Winterbottom’s Twenty-Four Hour Party People) and Aussie Essie Davis (the Matrix sequels, Winterbottom’s Code 46) having entirely convincing accents as well as playing their roles with an intense humanity that renders the horror of their situations and the terror they experience palpably real. Rumanian acting legend Marcel Iures (Layer Cake, Cambridge Spies, Amen, The Peacemaker) rounds off the ensemble, playing the boffin role with an edge that allows him a great deal of leeway in audience eyes as to how he will respond to the escalating events. Finally, composer Adrian Johnston (Kinky Boots, The Mighty Celt) deserves particular mention, not only for brilliantly racking up the tension as required, but also for paying homage to the late great Jerry Goldsmith’s unforgettable descending strings motif in Alien at the ideal visual moment.
All in all, the absolute gem of the festival, a terrific high-tension nerve-shredder, very highly recommended to horror/SF fans. Do see it in the cinema as well, as the UK needs more films like this coming from its industry, and from craftsmen as skilled as O’Brien. He also plans another horror film, and then what sounds like a cracking historical – an Elizabethan “western” set amongst the Border Reavers. I know I want to see that instead of another lousy US-aimed rom-com; don’t you?
Isolation currently has no set general release date, but is expected to debut sometime later this year.